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by Ronald Alsop | March 10, 2009

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Question: My son is a freshman and a competitive athlete at a top Division III university. But the school's basketball team has lost every game this season, and he wants to transfer out. He is interested in business and expects to get his M.B.A. He wants to know if it will negatively affect his chances for acceptance into a top business school if he transfers to a college with a less-competitive academic environment so he can play great basketball.

-- Rosemarie Montagna, Northport, N.Y.

Answer: Many factors figure into M.B.A. admission decisions, including an applicant's college record, scores on the Graduate Management Admission Test, previous work experience, application essays, personal references and admission interviews. But college performance is certainly one of the most important considerations because it indicates how well an applicant will perform in graduate school.

Obviously, a high grade-point average at an academically elite college will impress admission officers. But they don't rule out candidates from less-renowned schools, especially if they excelled as undergraduates. Christina Mabley, M.B.A. admissions director for the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, says it's especially important that "he makes the most of the school he chooses and charts a good path coming out of school." Generally, she adds, "business schools are looking for academic prowess, demonstrated leadership and professional self-awareness, and these are often dictated more by the individual than the environment."

The Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley sees many applicants from Ivy League schools but wouldn't automatically reject a top performer at a less-prestigious institution, as long as it is accredited. "We try to be open to a lot of different types of academic experiences," says Pete Johnson, executive director of full-time M.B.A. admissions at Haas. He adds that high GMAT scores "help equal things out," and several years of solid work experience after college are critical, regardless of which college an applicant attended.

Playing on a powerhouse sports team, however, won't impress many admission directors. Mr. Johnson says even winning the Heisman Trophy for being the top college football player wouldn't compensate for a lackluster undergraduate transcript.

On the other hand, demonstrating personal leadership and teamwork skills in sports could be a plus. In fact, staying with the losing basketball team might actually be the best decision of all. "We don't admit students based on team records, but why shy away from an opportunity to make a difference for your school?" says Derrick Bolton, head of admissions at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. "This young man could demonstrate a lot of leadership skill, rallying a losing team rather than abandoning it. He could help recruit some amazing players and then mentor and lead the team."

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